October 20, 2016
[Passion to Purpose]: Dyllon Burnside, Artist
Name: Dyllon Burnside
Profession: I’m an artist, an actor, recording artist, writer, teacher, producer, filmmaker, the list goes on… I make things. Sometimes, it’s difficult to narrow that down to one specific thing or title because as artists we usually wear many hats depending on our curiosities. Often times necessity dictates that as well.
I have contributed to my industry by: Remaining true to my passions and myself. I do my best to only work on projects that I believe in or that speak to my ideals and sensibilities.
Our forefathers of stage, film and television, notably Paul Robeson, James Earl Jones, Geoffrey Holder, Ossie Davis, Ben Vereen and Gregory Hines, poured tremendous heart and soul into perfecting their craft. Watching them perform lit a creative fire in us all, to see ourselves in their eloquent portrayals and depictions, to wait longly on their profound enunuciations, to share their emotional outpourings, to marvel at their stage presence and elaborate costuming and to embrace their #BlackManBrilliance. I am sure Dyllon Burnside can attest to this.
Whatever you label him, know this… Dyllon Burnside is a creative force! Seamlessly able to transition from thespian to crooner to playwright to filmmaker, this BE Modern Man has accompished a tremedous amount in only 27 years. Having already appeared in notable stage, television and film projects, Burnside has worked with some of the best in the business, including Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey, Emmy Award winning director Glenn Weiss and Tony Award winners Kenny Leon and Tonya Pickens.
Surrounded by a tribe of legends has, by far, been some of the most fulfilling and inspirational moments in his life. “I’m really proud of the variety of experiences and work I have been able to do in a relatively young career. I’ve had awesome opportunities to tour the country performing original music alongside folks like Stevie Wonder and Rihanna and in places like Madison Square Garden. I debuted in a leading role on Broadway and was featured on an NBC live musical all before graduating college. I’m perhaps most proud, though, of the community work I’ve been able to produce and curate. Those projects mean a lot to me and the people they serve. I produced an annual toy drive and concert called ‘Christmas in the City’ in Florida for many years where hundreds of underserved kids and families received gifts and incredible Christmas memories. I’ve been able to teach workshops and speak at schools across the country. Last year, I was a part of the production team for a really inspiring short film called ‘The Jump’ that has been received incredibly well in the 2016 film festival circuit. And most recently I curated an event called ‘Hold Up The Light’ at DC’s Arena Stage in response to the killings in Baton Rouge and Dallas where people got a chance to come and heal and also be challenged to get active in the local and national conversation about what’s happening to black people, specifically black men, in our country. The desire to communicate my experience and the experience of others inspires me. I hope that my work can be a catalyst for important dialogue about life, humanity, identity, etc,” he tells BE Modern Man.
The Pensacola, Florida, native began performing professionally at the tender age of 12 as a member of the Hip-Hop/R&B boy band 3D. An outlet to bond with his male cousin, shortly after disbanding Burnside turned his attention to another artform: acting. “It’s interesting how it happened. I’ve always wanted to be an actor. I knew from a very young age, but music happened for me first. I started a hip hop/r&b group when I was in middle school and it sort of took off unexpectedly. We were always on the road touring, so I couldn’t devote the necessary time to pursue theatre. It got to a point where I knew if I were ever going to be an actor, I would have to leave the group. So, I had to make a really hard decision, and here we are five or so years later.”
After determining that entertainment would be his career of choice, he enrolled in the prestigious CAP21 Conservatory and The New School where he garnered a bachelor’s in Media Studies and Writing. Armed with such credentials one would think it would be a piece of cake; that was not the case. “I struggled quite a bit once I graduated with my bachelor’s from The New School University. Prior to graduating, I had been so accustomed to always having too much to get done and not enough time. I did both the undergraduate program and an acting conservatory program at the same time, and on top of that was getting ready to open my first Broadway show. Then the conservatory program ended, and Holler… closed, then there was Peter Pan briefly, and shortly after it was done I graduated from college. I went from an intense period of being overworked with not enough rest, to having all of this free time and I didn’t know what to do with myself. It stressed me out being a part of the real world with no work to do. So I threw myself into writing again, and started taking classes and I auditioned a lot. I found my way but initially that transition was really tough for me mentally and emotionally.” He continues, “Well, I think we all have our strengths and gifts, and we have to do our best to stay in our lanes. That can be really difficult in a business where we are all seemingly trying to get to the same goals or break through the same doors. But ultimately, if I do the work I’m set out to do without trying to compete or compare myself to my counterparts, then I will be most effective, both amongst my peers and in the world more broadly.”
But beyond the walls of university and himself, Burnside learned that tackling a role, as in any job, required talent, uniqueness, nerve and drive. It was all a method to the madness. “I read the script a lot! As many times as possible, and try to pull out as many clues as I can about the character. A good writer leaves a lot of insight on the page, so I just become an investigator and try to figure out who the writer intends for the character to be. From there, I try to figure out where the character lives in my body, then the speech patterns start to fall into place, and once I get in the room with the writer, director and other actors, I think I know who he is. I, at least, have a starting point. The discovery continues in the room and he really comes to life when I’m together with the other artists. Acting is extremely collaborative. We all find the piece together, which is what makes it really fun and exciting for me.”
“I shot a film earlier this year that was quite difficult for me. Firstly, it was in a really remote town with very few signs of modern civilization and it was the dead of Winter, complete with snowstorms and frozen roads. I was on location for almost a month and I missed the convenience of the city terribly. But beyond being alone in the snow, I was the only black person working on the project. That in itself wasn’t an issue for me at all. I’m actually quite used to and comfortable being in those circumstances. I went to schools where that was the case my entire life. But, for the first time, I understood what Sidney Poitier meant when he said, ‘I was the only black person on the set. It was unusual for me to be in a circumstance in which every move I made was tantamount to representation of 18 million people.’ I felt an enormous responsibility; one that I did not reject, but also one that I did not expect I would have to bear. I think, especially in pieces that deal with race, there is a big responsibility that actors of color must necessarily assume when no one else in the crew and creative team understands what it is like to walk in your shoes. The actual work of the film was great, though. We had a great time on set, but I walked around with this feeling of huge responsibility for a month all by myself in this lonely, snow-covered town. It was challenging, but an amazing period of growth for me,” he states.
Acknowledging and recognizing those challenges are somewhat therapeutic especially for an actor of color. But regardless of your career choice, Burnside key advice is this: “I think the most important work anyone must do to be or feel a sense of success, is to do a lot of self-reflection. Being grounded and self-aware is the most important work of your life. Get to know yourself, your feelings, your desires, what makes you tick, what soothes you. Once you’re in tune with self, the rest is just listening to the still small voice.”
And as for this dream role?
“I don’t really have one of those. Some actors are really interested in playing iconic roles or one of the classics. They ask you that a lot in conservatory too, for some reason. I’ve always wanted to create new work and originate roles. Whenever they would ask us to write down our dream roles in conservatory, I would write that I wanted to originate a role in a new musical on Broadway. Being able to do that in Holler If Ya Hear Me confirmed for me that that’s what I want to do, new work. I love that stuff. My sights are set on film right now though. I want to make really exciting films. I’d love to star in an action-packed adventure fantasy film. It’d be fun to play a complicated hero with a dark side, some sort of Robin Hood type character,” he tells BE Modern Man.
Which is most important that we are equallty represented in all industries from politics to education to the arts and beyond. “I think it’s important for men like me to be represented in my industry because, like I said, we aren’t all the same. So perhaps the key is for men who aren’t like me to be represented. Even in diversity, we sometimes see the same “diverse types”. We have to continue to stretch ourselves to learn and tell someone else’s story who has not been represented.”
And outside of the workplace? How does he feel black men are championed in the mainstream? “I don’t know that I would say that being championed is the issue, so much as it is, what we choose to celebrate about them. The ‘mainstream’ has to do a better job of celebrating the diversity of black men. Manhood isn’t monolithic and neither is blackness. Too often, I think we see a certain type of wildly handsome, financially successful, cisgendered, heteronormative, ‘man’s man’ celebrated and there is certainly nothing wrong with being any of that. But that isn’t all there is to be celebrated. I’d love to see more people celebrated that perhaps, through their being, question what it means to be a man of color.” He continues, “I think people who know me personally, where I come from, and the things I’ve been able to do have a built-in alternative to the stereotypes. They can look to me and say, ‘Oh, I know Dyllon (pronounced like Milan, btw), and he is not what one would expect, or he isn’t what the media says a black man is, and he sets his own standard for success and he’s happy.’ I live my life as authentically as I can, knowing that someone in my family, or someone I meet at the stage door, may need to meet someone like me and knowing me may be the thing that frees them from the ignorance of stereotypes and conventionality.”
Being named a BE Modern Man is one of the many ways we affirm each other. An honor shared by many who have and still continue to uplift, inspire and work towards inclusion of all regardless of sexual identity, socio-economic and educational statuses, Burnside is wide awake and grateful for this recognition.
“BE Modern Man. I want to make that a declarative statement. ‘Be [A] Modern Man.’ Being a modern man means to me that you get to redefine manhood for yourself and not live according to a traditionalist or stereotypical viewpoint.
“Visibility is needed so that we can heal collectively as a culture from the notions that plague us; notions that have in too many cases led to the brutal and unjustified deaths of men of color in this country. Notions that silence and stifle the creativity and individuality of young boys. Notions of manhood that are not equally attributed to our white brothers,” he tells BE Modern Man.
And like our tagline states, “it is our normal to be extraordinary,” the thespian is conscious of his contributions, not only to the world of acting, but as a thriving and productive human being. “That’s a difficult question to answer about myself… You know, I have always marched to the beat of my own drum, and over the years, I’ve learned to stand firm in who I am, what I want and what I believe. I’m not easily swayed. Even if it means that everyone is saying go left, I will still go right if it feels like the appropriate path for me.” He ends with this: “I often ask myself, as a reminder, when entering into a space, ‘how can I add more love to this space?’ That’s always my goal, whether in my personal relationships with friends and family, local community, and the world-at-large. I hope to impact my community by being a vessel of love. Thank you for creating this dialogue and allowing me to share in it. “
The BE Modern Man team salutes Dyllon Burnside in his effort to showcase and prove that #blackartsmatter! We are excited to know that we have a BE Modern Man in Burnside, who is leading the charge by passing the torch and inspiring a new generation of musical and dramatic visionaries and dreamers. To find out more about Dyllon and his creative projects, visit www.dyllonburnside.com and follow him at IG @dyllonburnside.
It’s our normal to be extraordinary. Follow @blackenterprise and join the BE Modern Man conversation using #BEModernMan.